Saturday 12 February 2011

Depth Advantage

The conservation group Heritage Action has sent an open letter to the UK's Archaeology Forum,* concerning 'artefact hunting using “deep” metal detectors'. They suggest that the growing popularity of new metal detectors with greatly increased “depth” capabilities represents a new and significant danger to the buried archaeological resource. They indicate that they have in mind ground-penetrating metal seeking tools like the Minelab GPX 5000 (which "is claimed by both the manufacturers and the growing number of users to be capable of consistently detecting small targets at depths of 17 -22 inches, far below the level of most UK plough soil and hence into underlying undisturbed archaeology"). They argue that the increasing popularity of these models has major implications for policies concerning artefact hunting in the UK.
For many years policy towards recreational and commercial metal detecting has rested upon the assertion that the activity was not particularly damaging if carried out within disturbed plough soil but clearly the use of machines capable of detecting much deeper invalidates such a claim (other than by assuming the users are prepared to exercise superhuman restraint upon the depth to which they dig in response to a signal). Despite claims the machines are too expensive and of limited use in the UK there is evidence that an increasing number are now being purchased, including for shared use by club members. In our view therefore it follows that urgent revisions are required to the Code of Practice for Responsible Metal Detecting in England and Wales, the Guidance for Organisers of Metal Detecting Rallies , DEFRA’s rules for detecting on Scheme land, the conditions laid out by all public landowners and statutory guardians and indeed all advice issued to detectorists and landowners by archaeologists.
They point out that the growing popularity of these machines means the PAS may well find itself increasingly often in the invidious position of attending a commercial artefact hunting rally (bad enough) "and having to record numerous finds taken from below the plough soil right in front of them". HA suggest that this is something that ought to be condemned as irresponsible use of the finite and fragile resource that is the archaeological record.

HA do not mention the other point, that artefact hunting is officially condoned these days on the grounds that it is (sic) "rescuing" objects that are under threat of being damaged by agricultural activity in the ploughsoil, the fact that growing numbers of artefact hunters given a change eschew this activity in favour of getting their hands on the "less damaged" artefacts from below the ploughsoil rather scuppers that argument. Perhaps the reasons why the UK archaeological world finds itself able to "partner" artefact hunters rather than discouraging them need to be re-examined. The arguments offered a decade or so ago may not be so applicable to the current situation or that in a decade's time - and yet the despoiling of the archaeological record to fill scattered and ephemeral personal artefact collections goes on, largely unmitigated, year after year.

*[ The Association of Local Government Archaeological Officers, The Association of Regional and Islands Archaeologists, The Council for British Archaeology, The Institute of Field Archaeologists, The Institute of Historic Building Conservation, The National Trust, The National Trust for Scotland, Rescue: the British Archaeological Trust, The Society of Antiquaries of London, The Society of Museum Archaeologists, The Standing Conference of Archaeological Unit Managers.] Vignette: borrowed from Glasgow University.

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